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Author Topic: [111] The Trial--Franz Kafka  (Read 6787 times)
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Robert Skipper
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« on: December 23, 2010, 07:54:26 AM »

Here Come da Judge
December 23, 2010

Some people wake up with hangovers, some wake up as cockroaches, and others merely wake up to face the cold gray morning.  But no matter how we do it, we always wake up--or do we?

In Franz Kafka's The Trial, Joseph K. sits up in his bed one morning and rings for his breakfast.  Instead of the landlady's cook, a stranger enters in his room.  We soon learn that the man has put K. under arrest, but he does not reveal the charges.  It turns out, however, that his "arrest" will have no effect on his freedom to move about, go to work, talk to people, or what have you.  Nevertheless, although remaining totally in the dark about the accusation, K. spends the rest of the novel preparing his "defense."  He retains a lawyer; he goes to interrogations; he tries to enlist help from people who might exert some influence on his behalf; he gradually learns the Byzantine pathways of the court system; in short, he explores all his options, legal and otherwise.  In the end, we never actually see a trial, but we do get a verdict. Welcome to Kafka's world.

I once spent three years and a good chunk of my life savings preparing for a lawsuit that never took place.  So, while some people take The Trial as a surreal parable, it seems more to me like unblinking, gimlet-eyed realism.  I'll admit it has a stunned, dreamlike quality about it, but so did my life at that time.  A lot of that comes more from the narrative style than from the things described.  I noticed that Kafka often describes scenes in complete reverse order from what we expect as readers.  Consider this scene.  K. is seeking the apartment of an artist and arrives at his neighborhood.  He describes the filthy street with sludge flowing over the ice.  Read first this passage in which I have reordered some sentences into what I take to be a "normal" narrative style as follows:

K. wanted to finish off here as quickly as possible, so he would merely ask the painter a few searching questions and return at once to the Bank.  [He] flung only a fleeting glance [about him].  The door of [a] workshop was open; three apprentices were standing in a half-circle round some object on which they were beating with their hammers.  A great sheet of tin hanging on a wall cast a pallid light, which fell between two of the apprentices and lit up their faces and aprons. At the foot of the stairs [on] the other side of the entry an infant lay face down on the ground bawling, but, because of the deafening din that came from a tinsmith's workshop, one could scarcely hear its shrieks.

Now read Kafka's dreamlike version:

At the foot of the stairs an infant lay face down on the ground bawling, but one could scarcely hear its shrieks because of the deafening din that came from a tinsmith's workshop at the other side of the entry. The door of the workshop was open; three apprentices were standing in a half-circle round some object on which they were beating with their hammers.  A great sheet of tin hanging on a wall cast a pallid light, which fell between two of the apprentices and lit up their faces and aprons.  K. flung only a fleeting glance at all this, he wanted to finish off here as quickly as possible, he would merely ask the painter a few searching questions and return at once to the Bank. (p. 176)

Notice that, in Kafka's version, we see something first and only get its explanation or meaning or rationalization later, almost as an afterthought.  We see the screaming child first, and then he tells us he can't hear it, and then he shows us why we can't hear it.  He spares this startling scene only a fleeting glance, and only later tells us why. Throughout the novel, Kafka very persistently reverses the normal order of telling.  Someone talks for a long time, and afterward we learn the tone of voice.  K. knocks on a door and guiltily enters a room, and then notices other people looking at him from across the hall.  Someone interrupts an intimate conversation and we find out the interlocutors had known about the intruder all along.  This style produces two effects on me.  First, the ad hoc nature of the explanations, which often sound like feeble conjectures rather than narrative omniscience, makes every event seem arbitrary and ominous.  Second, because I've already attributed motivations by the time the narrator explains, I have to re-imagine each event, which I find very disorienting.

I notice a sharp difference between male and female characters.  Men conduct their business non-stop with total focus on the task at hand, no matter how absurd.  They spare no room--even within their own psyches--for personal matters or human concerns.  Women, on the other hand, relate directly to K. either as fellow humans or as seductresses, and any business they have they conduct on the side.  Men see K. as a case, while women see him as a companion.  Oh, yes, and groups of unnamed people, no matter what they do, act in unison, like in some silent films.

Kafka does playfully include symbols lest we forget that we read a tale.  For instance, in the painter's studio, K. notices a work in progress.  The painting represents a judge, seated.  Behind him stands a confused, sketchy figure, which the painter explains represents Justice--not the traditional figure of Justice, with blindfold and scales, but one which also has winged feet.  The painter explains, "my instructions were to paint it like that; actually it is Justice and the goddess of Victory in one."  (p. 183)  And shortly thereafter he changes it so "it no longer suggested the goddess of Justice, or even the goddess of Victory, but looked exactly like the goddess of the Hunt in full cry." (p. 184)  Toward the end, Kafka started to explore the difference between the "lower" and "higher" courts in a way that suggested to me the distinction between criminality and sin.  For instance, K. learns of three types of acquittals: definite acquittal, which no one has ever been granted ("that power is reserved for the highest Court of all, which is quite inaccessible to you, to me, and to all of us"); ostensible acquittal which means the case could always get reopened; and postponement, which means that K. or his representative must continually monitor the case to make sure it never advances to a later stage.

This dark novel of a man caught in a remorseless process, in which everyone seems complicit, from which he struggles blindly to escape, and about which he receives contradictory advice, deftly captures a common motif of nightmares.  We could look at the story as a parable about the horrors of an innocent man trapped in an inhuman bureaucracy.  But to do so misses The Great Unspoken.  For, in my opinion, The Trial gives us a deeply inauthentic existence: K. never once questions his own absolute innocence, and for that reason, if we identify with him, neither do we.  K.'s lack of self-reflection condemns him to forever eluding the machinations of some mysterious future trial.  But the fact remains: He never tries himself, so his life collapses into one monstrous, all-consuming evasion. 

I know that K.'s failure to question his innocence doesn't prove his guilt, but surely the total lack of doubt seems odd, does it not?  After all, he never hears the charges, so for K. to profess innocence must mean he unhesitatingly declares himself innocent of any possible accusation.  But a more direct hint occurs at the end, in the section called "In the Cathedral."  K. goes to a cathedral to meet someone who never appears.  Instead, a priest addresses him by name and tells him a parable about a man from the country who wanted access to the Law.  He came to an open gate guarded by a gatekeeper who told him he could not go in at the moment.  So the man waits there for years, and every time he ask admittance he gets the same answer.  Finally, as he lies dying, he asks why no one else has ever tried getting in.  The gatekeeper tells him "No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended for you."  The priest then tells K. several interpretations of the story.  One interpretation identifies the gatekeeper with the man himself.  K. immediately rejects that interpretation as far-fetched, preferring his own version: the gatekeeper deceived the man.  So, surely Kafka wanted us to at least consider the possibility that K. spent his life evading his inner magistrate.  Whatever the case, though, whether a tale of an innocent lost in a malign system or a tale of a fool running from insight, The Trial remains a truly remarkable work.
« Last Edit: December 26, 2010, 06:17:11 PM by Robert Skipper » Logged
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